Social History Society Conference 2019

The Social History Society Conference 2019 was held at Lincoln this year, with a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking keynote from Professor Olivette Otele. The three-day conference was jam-packed with interesting papers from all around the social history world. Huge thanks to the team, especially Phil Booth, for working tirelessly to put on a great conference for us all to enjoy. I couldn’t possibly mention all the papers that I enjoyed, but I do have some highlights:

My Top 3 Papers

First up, Ella Sbaraini‘s paper ‘“He asked her if she wd. put an end to him”: The Experience of Suicide among the Elderly in England, 1700-1815‘. I’ve always had a love of the 18th century, and for a long time I thought that was the period I would end up in as a researcher. Although I don’t go anywhere near the 1700’s now, I do still like to indulge in a little intellectual tourism on occasion! What struck me about Ella’s paper in particular was how well she pulled together all the voices of her subjects and intertwined them with a keen understanding of the historiography. The further back we go the harder it usually is to find first hand accounts of anyone except the super-rich, so to hear snippets of people’s suicide letters or testimonies from coroner’s reports being used as signposts throughout her paper was very special. She dealt sensitively with an emotive topic, and managed to portray the suicidal of the 18th century as human in a way that avoided sentimentality. Most impressive: Ella is not a PhD student, but MPhil! If she is this engaging now, I can’t wait to see what she has in store for us over the coming years.

Now, onto ‘“I dearly loved my mother but somehow, I never got within miles of Father”: An insight into the good, the bad and the unconventional lives of fifty English working class families between 1900 and 1945‘ from Rebecca Ball. Hands up, I’ll admit to a bit of favouritism here, as Rebecca is a fellow PhD student at Wolverhampton. However, I thought very highly of her paper for much the same reasons as I enjoyed Ella’s. For me, the best papers include a lot of first-hand quotes from working class people, and he had those in abundance. Using a collection of autobiographies to inform her research keeps the paper (and I assume, her thesis) fully grounded to the ideals of raising up working class voices. Most impressive: There was a clear cross-section of sources that was spread amongst the families that Rebecca studies. At no point does she seem to rely on one family too heavily, and so the product is a clear win for consistency and authenticity.

Last but not least, Adam McKie‘s ‘Hegemony, Resistance and Agency in Two ‘Utopian’ Company Villages, 1926-3‘. The idea of towns/villages being built for workers is something that interests me but I hadn’t come across the subject in any great detail since looking at Bourneville during my OU Diploma. These two inter-war towns were so brutally modernist that Adam’s presentation briefly felt like a whistle stop tour of Brave New World, and so when it came to detailing how the control that the company had over the citizens was inevitably challenged by the workers so vehemently, it was hard not to shout, “Workers of the World Unite!” Most impressive: The valiant and persuasive attempt to bring the term ‘hegemony’ back into the social history sphere. I think I felt a few eyebrows in the audience rise, but I reckon he has a good point! Check out his book on women cricket players.

A bit soppy, but I genuinely liked all the papers I saw. Other notables include Hazel Perry’s paper on the Celta Mill strike for use of visual material, Imran Mohammed’s paper on appeasement for the peek at regional interwar newspapers, and Joe Stanley’s insight into Yorkshire miners openly flouting the anti-combination laws to get a bigger share of the coal-mining profits.

Wages Fit For Heroes

I also really enjoyed presenting my paper, ‘Wages Fit For Heroes: How The General Federation Of Trade Unions Won Pay Increases For WWI Soldiers’. It was the last slot on the last day, but perhaps that just meant we finished on a high note?

The Ones That Got Away

The SHS is by far the biggest conference I have ever been to. The big problem is always going to be that it is impossible to see every paper that is of interest. Some papers I didn’t get to see but heard very high praise for include Frances Osis’s paper about the treatment of executed Jewish criminals was apparently very good, as was Cora Šalkovskis’s paper on girls swallowing needles in the 19th century. Simon Briercliffe’s paper on racialised Irish spaces was on my must-see list, but sadly clashed with another panel that fitted my current area of research. I also had to pass up some intriguing spy history from Chris Smith to go to a panel on education and internationalism, as that’s the subject of my next thesis chapter. I have just started his book on John Cairncross, one of the Cambridge Spies, and can already recommend it!

I need one of those Hermione Granger spinny-time-changing-watch thingies for next time.

The Best Bit

The whole point of a conference like this is to call together historians in the broad field of social history and take a look at all the latest research. That’s great, and is clearly both warranted and enjoyable. However, there is a second and (I think) far more important point to these conferences. To see what’s next not just in terms of research but in terms of scholars. So a big thumbs up from me from the salaried/contract-holding researchers that eschewed the panels featuring the ‘big names’ in the field, and instead made a point of choosing to see the postgrad students present their research. Chris Smith (Coventry) and Tosh Warwick (Manchester Met) get an honourable mention here, as I and fellow PGR’s noted their presence and support. They also bought drinks for us lowly self-funded students, and we were all very grateful! Another honourable mention to outgoing Chair of SHS Prof Pam Cox, who stepped in to chair my postgraduate panel.

Speaking for myself but also, I suspect, for a great many other postgraduate researchers, I absolutely value established scholars taking the time to read my work or hear me speak, and posing thought-provoking questions and making constructive suggestions. I’m able to now walk away from this conference with a new idea for a chapter that will haul my thesis out of the labour history sphere and plant it firmly in a place that examines the emotional world of trade unionism. Most importantly, I have a renewed sense of belonging: for now at least, my Imposter Syndrome has been well and truly vanquished thanks to being able to be a part of such a welcoming and supportive conference.

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